by Roy Harris

Nestle Nabs CFO From Wal-Mart Ranks

Sep 28, 20115 mins
IT Leadership

Wan Ling Martello trades Arkansas for Switzerland to s쳮d Jim Singh at the food giant.

Swiss food giant Nestle SA’s choice of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executive Wan Ling Martello to become its chief financial officer signifies a plan to beef up its global e-commerce and global markets reach, which is Martello’s strength.

The 53-year-old Martello will take charge at Nestle in April, when Jim Singh retires, at 65. Vevey, Switzerland-based Nestle said in a statement yesterday. Martello is currently Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart’s executive vice president of global e-commerce and emerging markets, and previously held posts at Kraft Foods Inc. and Borden Foods Corp.

“She comes with a celebrated resume and has the required exposure to this business as both a supplier and a customer,” Thomas Russo, a partner at Gardner Russo & Gardner in Lancaster, Pa., told Bloomberg News. “She’s also multilingual, which is quite attractive,” said Russo, who manages about $4 billion, including Nestle shares. Martello speaks Mandarin and Hokkien Chinese, and Tagalog, in addition to English.

Nestle’s Asian Push

Nestle has touted its goal of achieving greater expansion in Asia. The world’s largest food company, Nestle’s biggest Chinese acquisition was in July. The company aims to collect 45% of its revenue from developing countries by 2020. That’s up from about a third currently — but still less than the 50% that rival Unilever brings in from Asian markets.

Specifically, Nestle has focused more on Internet sales with products such as Nespresso coffee, Special-T tea and BabyNes infant formula. The company created a website in Germany called Nestle Marktplatz this month to sell 1,500 products, including Baci Perugina and KitKat Mini chocolates, according to Bloomberg News.

Martello, who joined Wal-Mart in 2005 as CFO of its international unit, helped lead the U.S. retailer’s acquisition this year of a minority stake in Yihaodian, a Chinese online supermarket operator. Her replacement hasn’t been named, Lorenzo Lopez, a Wal-Mart spokesman, told Bloomberg.

Martello is a U.S. citizen of Chinese and Philippine extraction. A CPA, she has an MBA from the University of Minnesota and earned a bachelors degree from the University of the Philippines. She has vast knowledge of the finance and control area and solid experience in the food and beverage business as well as the retail segment. Her work at Kraft was from 1985 to 1995, in finance and business administration. At Borden (1995-1998) she was controller.

From 1998-2005 she was CFO with NCH Marketing Services Inc., a former subsidiary of Nielsen, and then was COO, and late president USA. At Wal-Mart, since 2005 she has been steeped in retail and e-commerce at Wal-Mart, first as senior vice president, CFO & strategy, for Wal-Mart International, and then in her EVP, COO, global ecommerce and emerging markets role.

Besides her financial background, she is expert in consumer and branded goods category, Nestle said.

“I am confident that Wan Ling will blend well into the Nestle culture and that her strong experience in finance and the food and beverage business, both from the industry and retail angle, will allow her to further enhance the Nestle model combining top-line growth with continuous margin improvement and an improved return on invested capital,” Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke said. “Jim Singh has strong human qualities and is a highly respected professional. Since I became CEO I have been able to appreciate the full extent to which Jim has been instrumental in steering Nestl through these last challenging years.”

Lacking a ‘Superstar CV’?

Martello will be the second person from outside the Swiss company to take the CFO post in less than a decade. Paul Polman, a former Procter & Gamble Co. executive and now head of Unilever, ran Nestle’s finances from 2006 until early 2008.

“For a company of too many ‘insiders’ at senior level positions, this external perspective and experience could prove to be very useful at Nestle,” Andrew Wood, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, wrote in a note to investors that was quoted on Bloomberg News.

But unlike Thomas Russo of Garner Russo, Wood holds the view that “Martello does not have a superstar CV,” and believes she may have taken a step back from a more senior position within Wal-Mart. While he’s not “bowled over” by Martello’s appointment, Wood also isn’t giving a final judgment on it, he said.

Nestle may be trying to avoid a similar situation to that of former CFO Polman, who many investors had hoped would become CEO, Wood said.

“At first glance, Martello is far from the stature of Polman,” Wood added in his note. “Somewhat cynically, perhaps Nestle considers that it learned its lesson last time and does not want the same again.”

Nina Backes, a Nestle spokeswoman, declined to comment to Bloomberg on Wood’s remarks.

Singh has been Nestle’s chief financial officer since 2008 and has worked at the company for 35 years. During his tenure as CFO, Nestle sold its holdings in eye-care provider Alcon to Novartis AG for $39 billion, freeing up cash for acquisitions.

Nestle’s announcement came after the close of trading in Zurich. Nestle shares rose 0.8 percent to 49.43 Swiss francs yesterday. The stock has dropped 9.7 percent this year, double the loss of the Stoxx 600 Food and Beverage Index of 28 companies.

With a market value of 163.1 billion Swiss francs ($181 billion), Nestle is Europe’s second-most valuable company after Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

Martello’s replacement hasn’t been named, according to Lorenzo Lopez, a Wal-Mart spokesman.